Since one of theater’s great specialties is haunted spaces, it should come as no surprise that the entire month of October is filled with shows about spooky locales with hidden secrets.
Along with “The Musical of the Living Dead” and three separate versions of “The Rocky Horror Show,” two other productions opened recently that feel suited for this ghostly season. The first is a piece of crowd-pleasing popular entertainment while the second hopes to challenge its audience on a deeper level.
‘The Mysterious Wisterias’
It’s a dark and stormy night at a haunted plantation in the early ’40s.
There’s a fading starlet, a handsome gigolo, a failed comedian, a ditzy blonde, a hip piano player, a zany personal secretary… and a growing body count. Can the crackerjack novice reporter solve the case and sing a song before she joins the victims?
What theatrical whirligig Ricky Graham and his collaborator Sean Patterson have schemed together with “The Mysterious Wisterias” is a mash-up of Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death,” a Nancy Drew mystery and a “Bowery Boys” adventure.
Playing over the next month at the Stage Door Canteen, the half-musical/half-mystery doesn’t make a lick of sense, hangs around one song too long and has an equal number of face-palming groans to its genuine laughs.
But when you throw in the vernacular of the times, down-to-the-socks period detail from costumer Kathleen Van Horn and sharp-to-the-touch ensemble work from longtime Graham troupe members Tracey Collins and Matthew Mikal, you also get an evening of first-rate silliness that should please kids as much as it does adults.
And Graham is the perfect actor to place in the center of it all.
“Wisterias” gives him a chance not only to dress in drag and sing double-entendre ditties but also to impersonate a collection of classic detectives including an “As Time Goes By” crooning Sham Shovel, a poor relation to Sam Spade.
His argument with Trina Beck as the feisty reporter over the pronunciation of Sham’s name is a clinic in creating comedy through reaction.
But for all the spit and polish, a discerning audience member might be left with the feeling that something was missed.
Given the talent involved and all the attention to detail, it might not have hurt to have given the material itself the same sort of care. While “Wisterias” can be great fun, it seems more designed to rely on the talent of those involved than on the subject matter itself.
That being said, it is still a far better time than many of the things masquerading as comedy in this town.
What: “The Mysterious Wisterias” by Ricky Graham and Sean Patterson
Where: National World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen
When: Running through Nov. 23; shows begin at 8 p.m., dinner begins serving at 6 p.m.
Info: (504) 528-1943 or
On the other end of the theatrical spectrum, the avant-garde theater company New Noise’s “Oxblood,” while possessing much of the same professional diligence, is everything “Mysterious Wisterias” is not.
Elliptical to the point of willful inaccessibility, the hourlong theatrical event is an intellectual hybrid of dance, song and Southern Gothic sensibilities.
Unlike the posh surroundings of the Stage Door Canteen, this original work takes place in City Park’s Grow Dat Youth Farm in the late afternoon and is deeply connected to the environment in which it plays.
Swaying with shovels, dancing spouses dig graves. Long-lost tools emerge from the ground like secrets better forgotten. And the earth itself becomes an antagonist pushing against all who would seek to labor it for either profit or solace.
Ostensibly following a triangular and embittered relationship between a married couple and the wife’s left-behind sister in the Deep South, “Oxblood” is actually a performance poem about the inability to recover or escape our roots.
Staged lovingly by director Joanna Russo alongside set designer Joan Long’s creepy replication of the burnt-out husk of a family farmhouse, the show flirts with a Flannery O’Connor energy and has more than a few flashes of compelling imagery supplied by its three able actors Kylie Arcenaux, Phil Cramer and Bonnie Gabel.
But it is neither linear enough to drive us with a compelling narrative nor sufficiently eerie to suggest darker secrets beneath its surface. Instead, it unwinds as merely a coming home story whose details have been replaced with interpretive dance routines or choral folk songs.
It is less a matter of feeling as if “Oxblood’s” meaning escapes you and more a sense that the mystery is solved for everyone but the characters who inhabit the tale.
What: New Noise presents “Oxblood”
Where: City Park’s Grow Dat Youth Farm, 150 Zachary Taylor Dr.
When: 5 p.m. Oct. 24-26, Nov. 22-23